Selected Statistics on Canadian Families and Family Law:
Second Edition

CHILD CUSTODY

Custody Arrangements

More and more couples are living together and having children without marrying. Often, family break-ups occur without any recourse to the legal system. Does this affect the likelihood of separated parents obtaining a court order for custody? Is the issue of custody increasingly settled out of court? The NLSCY provides a wealth of information on the arrangements parents make for the care of their children when they separate.

Existence of Court Orders for Custody and Variations by
Time Since Separation and Type of Separation

Table 4 provides a breakdown of the frequency with which court orders were obtained for the custody of the children. In Canada as a whole, parents reported they had a court order, or that they were in the process of obtaining one, in 48 percent of the cases.

Table 4: Distribution of Children According to Whether a Court Order for Custody Exists, by Type of Broken Union and Time Elapsed Since Separation-NLSCY, Cycle 1, 1994-1995

  Court Order Court Order in Progress Not Submitted to the Court Total N 1
Canada 37.4 10.1 52.5 100 3295

Type of broken union
  Court Order Court Order in Progress Not Submitted to the Court Total N 1
Common-law 27.9 11.9 60.2 100 1175
Marriage, common-law before 42.4 9.4 48.2 100 1141
Marriage, no common-law before 44.1 7.8 48.2 100 927

Time elapsed since separation
  Court Order Court Order in Progress Not Submitted to the Court Total N 1
Less than 1 year 15.7 11.3 73.0 100 566
1-2 years 29.3 10.4 60.3 100 906
3-4 years 43.2 12.6 44.2 100 761
5 years and over 51.7 7.3 41.0 100 1062

1 N = Weighted data brought back to the original sample size.
Source: Marcil-Gratton, N. & C. Le Bourdais (1999).Custody, Access and Child Support:
Findings from The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth
.

As would be expected, the lower portion of Table 4 shows that the number of cases in which parents said they had a court order rises as the time elapsed since separation increases. In the first year after separation, a court order for custody exists in only one case out of four, and after five years, the percentage has risen to 59 percent.

Custody

Table 5 shows who received custody of the children and the type of contact that was maintained with the non-custodial parent in cases where the parents said they had a court order.

Table 5: Court-Ordered Custody Arrangement, According to
the Age of the Child at Separation and the Type of Broken Union-NLSCY, Cycle 1, 1994-1995

  Mother Exclusive Custody Father Exclusive Custody Shared Physical Custody Other Total N 1
  (%)  
Canada 79.3 6.6 12.8 1.2 100 1239

Age of child at separation
  Mother Exclusive Custody Father Exclusive Custody Shared Physical Custody Other Total N 1
  (%)  
0-5 years 80.6 6.0 12.4 1.1 100 1046
6-11 years 74.0 8.1 15.7 2.1 100 187

Type of broken union
  Mother Exclusive Custody Father Exclusive Custody Shared Physical Custody Other Total N 1
  (%)  
Common-law 84.1 6.2 8.7 1.0 100 328
Marriage, common-law before 74.3 7.9 16.8 0.9 100 489
Marriage, no common-law before 82.0 5.3 10.9 1.8 100 409

1 N = Weighted data brought back to the original sample size.
Source: Marcil-Gratton, N. & C. Le Bourdais (1999). Custody, Access and Child Support:
Findings from The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth
.

The results of Table 5 confirm what is known based on other data sources: after separation, mothers were given custody of the children in the overwhelming proportion of cases. Close to 80 percent of children under the age of 12 were placed in their mothers' custody in cases where a court order existed. Almost 7 percent were placed in their fathers' custody, and for 13 percent of children, a shared custody arrangement was established.

These proportions change according to the age of the children at the time of separation. Older children are more likely to be placed in their fathers' care or in joint custody arrangements. Among children aged 6 to 11, one child in four was entrusted to the fathers' care, either exclusively (8 percent) or jointly with the mother (16 percent). Among children aged 6 and under, only 18 percent were in the sole custody of their fathers or in joint custody. Finally, children from broken common-law unions (84 percent), as well as children from Quebec (87 percent), were most likely to remain in the custody of their mothers, and there is possibly a link between these two results.

The Department of Justice's survey of child support awards also collected information on the custody of the children. Figure 13 shows the results of the custody portion in this survey. The overall patterns are similar to those found in the NLSCY.

Figure 13: Type of Custody Arrangements

Living Arrangements

Regardless of the custody arrangements that parents reported, the data in Table 6 show that 87 percent of the NLSCY children lived solely with their mothers at the time of their parents' separation.

Table 6: Living Arrangements at Time of Separation for Children of Broken Families-NLSCY, Cycle 1, 1994-1995
Living Arrangement %
Child lives with mother only 86.8
Child lives with father only 7.0
Shared, mainly mother 2.9
Shared, mainly father 0.9
Equally shared 2.5
Total 100.0
N1 = 3,276

1 N = Weighted data brought back to the original sample size.
Source: Marcil-Gratton, N. & C. Le Bourdais (1999). Custody, Access and Child Support: Findings from The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth.

Contact with Non-custodial Parent

For the first time, the NLSCY collected national data on the amount of contact between non-custodial parents and their children. The survey did not address the reasons for the patterns of contact, but it did provide information on those patterns and the factors associated with them.

Figure 14 shows the distribution of children from broken families according to the type of contact maintained with either parent at the time of separation, regardless of whether the broken union was common-law or marriage.

Figure 14: Type of Contact Maintained with Either Parent at Time of Separation NLSCY 1994-1995

Very few children (7 percent) lived with their fathers only and another small fraction shared residence with both parents (7 percent). The rest of the children (86 percent) lived with their mothers and visited their fathers with varied frequency. Close to half of the children visited their fathers on a regular basis; less than a third (30 percent) visited every week; and another sixteen percent visited every two weeks (see Table 7). One-quarter of the children visited their fathers irregularly (once a month, on holidays, or at random). Fifteen percent of children never saw their fathers (although a small number had letter or phone contact with him).

Table 7 illustrates the differences in the amount of contact non-custodial parents maintained with their children according to the type of parental union at the time of separation. Firstly, children from common-law unions were more likely to live with their mothers at the time of separation than children whose parents were married (91 percent versus 83 percent). Secondly, they were less likely to live in a shared custody arrangement (3 percent versus 8 percent). Finally, twice the number of children from broken common-law unions never saw their fathers, compared to children whose parents had been married (21 percent versus 11 percent).

Children whose parents were married before the separation were slightly more likely to live with their fathers after the separation than children from common-law unions (8 percent versus 5 percent). In addition, even though they were less likely to live with their mothers after separation, they were more likely than children from common-law unions to see their fathers once a week (32 percent versus 28 percent).

Table 7: Type of Contact Maintained With Either Parent at Time of Separation by Type of Union-NLSCY, Cycle 1, 1994-1995
  Canada
Marriage Common-Law Total
Type of Contact (%)
Child lives with mother only: 83.2 91.4 86.2
Never visits father * 11.1 21.3 14.8
Visits father irregularly * 25.3 23.3 24.6
Visits father every two weeks 14.9 19.1 16.4
Visits father once a week 31.9 27.7 30.4
Child lives with father only: 8.4 5.3 7.3
Never visits mother * 0.3 1.2 0.7
Visits mother irregularly * 2.5 1.8 2.2
Visits mother every two weeks 2.3 1.2 1.9
Visits mother once a week 3.3 1.1 2.5
Child shares residence with
both parents
8.4 3.2 6.5
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0
N 1 2028 1158 3187

*  "Irregular" visiting includes once a month, on holidays only and at random; "never" includes contact by telephone or letter only.
1 N = Weighted data brought back to the original sample size.
Source: Marcil-Gratton, N. & C. Le Bourdais (1999). Custody, Access and Child Support:
Findings from The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth
.

Contact with Non-custodial Parent over Time

The NLSCY data show how the frequency of contact between fathers and their children is related to the time since the separation of the parents. Also, the likelihood of children living with both parents after the separation, or visiting regularly with their fathers, decreases over time.

Figure 15: Type of Contact Maintained with Father at the Time of Survey, According to Time Elapsed Since Separation-NLSCY 1994-1995

As Figure 15 shows, children whose parents were separated less than two years shared residences with both parents in nine percent of cases compared to only six percent of children whose parents were separated for at least five years. The regularity of visits also drops considerably over time. Fifty-seven percent of children whose parents had been separated for less than two years at the time of the survey visited their fathers regularly (every week or every two weeks). This percentage drops to thirty-one percent when the parents had been separated five or more years before the survey. Moreover, close to a quarter of children whose parents had been separated at least five years never saw their fathers.


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